This story is by Jenna Langbaum and won an Honorable Mention in our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jenna Langbaum is a New York-based poet, playwright, and cheeseburger enthusiast. Everything she writes depicts, deliberates, and often deforms the creamy, sappy, cheesy molten force of love and romance. Find more of her writing at jennalangbaum.com and also through her latest project, crisscrossxx, a collaboration of poetry and images.
I was getting my ears pierced. It was finally happening. Jenny told me not to; she said it so sadly so sheepishly like an earring would be the end of everything. I’m starting to think Jenny doesn’t know shit.
I pulled the white tank top over my head. I spit on a paper towel and scrubbed. The mysterious brown stain was the last thing I wanted with my new earring but I only had the Honda for an hour and a half so I had to get going.
I looked at myself in the mirror of my mom’s 2004 black Honda. I had a growing patch of red hair above my lip. Summer had a way of fucking with my freckles until my skin looked like dried up paint. The rest of my face was alright. I was starting to look like a human being.
It was September, four days before senior year. I wanted the earring before school started. My voice had finally cracked. I was taller. I was turning into someone else, someone who would wear an earring.
The streets smelled like burning wood and grass. I waved my hand out of the window. The fall was here and it was a relief. July was fucking hot. August was boring. September is always like a rocket ship.
I turned on Nelly — the whole reason for the earring in the first place — turned it all the way up until the car thumped. My mom’s Honda was going for a ride.
I assumed the piercing would happen at a tattoo parlor. I couldn’t think of one tattoo parlor in Westchester. After I drove around for ten minutes longer than I would like to admit, I pulled into the parking lot of the mall.
I ended up in a purple plastic chair with a silver crown framing the back. I was under warm breath that smelled like cheese. The breath belonged to a girl, slightly overweight, wearing a small plaque that read “Talia.” She had long black hair that fell behind her like a polyester cape. Her chest was resting on my arm.
I had to physically stop my brain from thinking about what she looked like without the purple Claire’s t-shirt on. She smelled like powder Dove deodorant. It was so fresh.
I gulped and looked up. There was something about her face, sweaty, warm, creamy, her lips thick with lip gloss. She was older than me but not by much. There was something about this face. I knew it somehow. Her eyes shone like hovercrafts.
She had a lip ring. I imagined the tiny silver hoop on my chest on my neck on my lips, the cold metal like ice.
She stared at me dumbly as she wiped my ear with alcohol.
“What do you want?”
“To get my ears pierced.”
“Yeah — I mean like one or two ears?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think two earrings look stupid?”
“Do you think one earring looks lopsided?”
“Don’t you work here?”
“Look, I can’t tell you what you want.”
It was something Jenny would have hated. She loved to tell me what I wanted, Jenny with her scrawny legs and her skinny face. In this moment, Jenny seemed made up.
“Alright. I’ll do one.”
“Ok. You’re going to fill a bit of pain.”
But I wasn’t listening. I stared at the gun Talia held tightly. It was glowing and black and freaking me out.
My Aunt Priscilla brought my cousin Marianna to get her ears pierced when she was a newborn baby. Poor Marianna was pulled from the womb to the face of this giant, shining gun. If Marianna could handle it so could I.
And then, it happened. The cold metal was on my ear. I imagined it was Talia’s lip ring and her teeth biting down. Her smell, the powder, was in my space. Her breathing was heavy. The pain rose and fell. I wilted.
“I want the other ear.” My eyes remained closed.
And there it was again, the gun, her lip on my ear and the bite. My skin was on fire.
I chose moderately sized fake diamonds. I ran my fingers over the stones. Holy shit, I did it.
“Here,” she handed me a tiny purple mirror. My red hair flopped over my face and my diamond ears blazed. I was in horror. I looked like my Grandma Jean.
I looked at Talia. She was laughing and the sound surprised me. It was raspy and sweet and loud.
“I look like my grandmother,” I said out loud.
Talia smiled. “That will be $27.50.” I forked it over.
“In case you want another one — maybe your eyebrow or your lip, my name is Tali.” She handed me a Claire’s business card.
Was she implying something when she said lip?
I stared at her.
“Do you want to come with me to get my hair cut?”
“What?” she said under her breath.
I shrugged and walked away when suddenly I heard her tell someone she was going on break.
“You’re coming with me?”
“I want to see what happens.”
We stood silently on the escalator. I could feel my Grandma Jean’s presence. It was destroying my game.
We went to JOHNNY’S BARBER on the third level of the mall. It was meant to replicate an old fashioned barber shop but instead smelled like hair gel and fried chicken from the food court.
“What should I do with my hair?”
And that’s what I told Marco.
Talia sat on the spinning chair next to me.
She told me how much she loved hair, touching and feeling it. How she dropped out of community college because she was doing badly. How she was now taking classes online. How she wanted to be a beautician and owned a lot of wigs — well — hair extensions.
I didn’t have much to say, just felt strangely happy she was talking.
Everything she said was like unraveling a wrapper, another layer gone, another layer gone, until my hair was shaved off and she told me —
She had been married.
Marco stared at her.
“To who?” I asked though it was a dumb fucking question, like I would fucking know him.
“His name was, is, Bobby but we aren’t together anymore,”
She held her fingers together and pushed.
I nodded and pretended I knew Bobby and was also divorced.
“I had a serious girlfriend but we just recently broke up.”
I had never had a girlfriend. I sometimes make out with Jenny when my parents aren’t home and we watch Growing Pains.
Marco offered me a mirror. Fuck, I looked like my Aunt Priscilla. I forgot my Aunt Priscilla buzzed her hair when my Grandma Jean died.
“You look nice.” She smiled widely like she wanted to say more but wasn’t sure.
“Do you have to go back to Claire’s?”
Neither of us moved.
“Do you want to get a slurpee? They have a pumpkin flavor this month.”
And then we were in the Honda and we were quiet. She looked out the window and played with her hair, a ring of orange light around her face. Her skin was practically translucent. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure she was real.
I wanted to tell her I didn’t feel like a grown up. I hadn’t even had sex. I wanted to tell her but maybe it was best not to get into it.
Some moments you drive into head on, and some moments drive into you.
She smirked. And I drove.